First of two parts
Adjutant General David S. Baldwin returned in April from a tour of duty in Afghanistan to lead the California National Guard – and inherited a force plagued by mismanagement and freighted with scandal.
Neglect had reduced Camp Roberts, a giant training site near San Luis Obispo, to decrepitude. An auditor had accused Guard members of skimming extra fire-duty pay. And a criminal inquiry had been launched into pilots who allegedly enriched themselves by violating safety rules. Baldwin's two immediate predecessors were under investigation for improper double dipping – two days' pay for a single day of work.
Dwarfing those problems, an estimated $100 million in dubious or illegal payments to Army Guard members had been made from incentive funds meant to boost recruiting and retention of soldiers. That alleged fraud – like the other cases, exposed in recent Bee investigations – is the subject of a major criminal probe by four federal agencies, including the FBI and IRS.
"The problems were monumental," said Baldwin. He said they had to be tackled without neglecting the Guard's responsibilities to serve in overseas wars and respond to local emergencies.
To reform a culture that had "lost its focus on the value of selfless service," Baldwin dismissed past leaders and said he installed others who have fought in today's wars and experienced their soldiers' sacrifices.
Baldwin also has moved aggressively to address the Guard's ethical lapses, particularly in the Recruiting and Retention Command. He's trying to recoup millions of dollars paid to Guard members improperly or illegally, and, under his command, three recruiting leaders were removed from their posts.
Brig. Gen. Charlotte L. Miller was ousted from the Guard altogether because, Baldwin said, "I had lost faith, trust and confidence in her abilities as a senior leader." Miller declined to comment.
Col. Diana L. Bodner and Lt. Col. Jodee A. Rowe were shifted into jobs with less responsibility. Each of them declined to comment, other than denying wrongdoing.
Baldwin also has tackled ongoing graft and extravagance that suggested a stubborn culture of impunity.
He removed Command Sgt. Maj. Bobby L. Rollins, a top assistant to Rowe, from full-time employment in the Guard for involvement in recent schemes that improperly rewarded recruiters with gift cards and Apple iPads – and for intimidating a subordinate who pushed back against the order, according to an official report obtained by The Bee.
Rollins did not respond to requests for comment.
Guard officials said four other officers involved in the iPad scam, whom they declined to name, were reprimanded, fired from their full-time jobs and removed from recruiting duties. On appeal, two were retained outside of recruiting.
Finally, Baldwin canceled an extravagant conference for recruiters and their families, planned at a Lake Tahoe resort, that Guard members likened to an extended party.
He voiced frustration that his crackdown has been delayed by the need to cooperate with a slow-moving federal investigation, whose officials seized most of the incentive-fraud evidence. But Baldwin said he already knows enough to identify the genesis of the problems: "Incredible pressure that came from above" to increase Guard membership.
That pressure, Baldwin said, came from Brig. Gen. Louis J. Antonetti, a former commander of the Army Guard.
The goal – more troops for civil emergencies – was laudable, Baldwin said, but Antonetti's implementation was flawed.
Antonetti declined to comment for this report.
Baldwin, 47, spoke bluntly about the serious lapses that predated his April appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown to head the agency yet pose a key challenge to his success. A senior Guard leader for years, his ability to reform the tradition-bound military force – which in case after case seemed to lose its ethical bearings – will be watched closely by members of the California Senate Rules Committee, which must confirm his appointment.
In several interviews, Baldwin voiced a determination to change the Guard, while showing protective concern about the honor of a military organization to which he has devoted his entire adult life.
Baldwin said the Guard must demonstrate that it understands the lessons of the recruiting scandal. The Recruiting Command "began to adopt civilian sales tools and tactics, which included incentives for the recruiters. That's where they began to cross the line," he said, to a "reward-based culture" that subverted military ethical standards.
Shift to 'overdrive'
By 2005, then-Col. Charlotte L. Miller, the first recruiting leader under whom serious lapses occurred, was enjoying a steady rise through the ranks. She had landed a high-profile headquarters job: commander of the Recruiting and Retention Command.
With two foreign wars siphoning off soldiers and scaring off prospects, her unit's success became the Guard's central objective.
Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, incentives manager, processed bonuses and student loan repayments for recruiting. To streamline the bureaucracy, in 2006 she was moved into the Recruiting Command. Her new superiors depended on Jaffe's ability to move money fast, even though a year earlier a federal inspector had told Guard leaders that Jaffe had approved millions of dollars in improper payments, according to Guard reports.
Jaffe delivered as hoped in the Recruiting Command. Money flowed, and the Guard's ranks swelled. In the process, fraudulent payments became routine, according to auditor records.
Earlier this month, Jaffe pleaded guilty to filing false financial claims. She faces millions of dollars in restitution and years in prison.
Miller's failure to detect or stop those crimes was echoed in her own policy to boost recruiter productivity, known by the acronym "RIP-O."
Short for "recruiter incentive program-officers," RIP-O boosted cash bonuses for recruiters, according to a memo by Miller.
She encouraged a team approach – sharing credit for enlistees and year-end bonuses. The policy backfired when recruiters gamed the system.
The more soldiers a single recruiter brought in, the larger the bonus the recruiter earned per soldier, Baldwin said he learned from aides when he took command. So recruiters assigned most credits to a few colleagues, sharply boosting the shared bonus pool.
"Unfortunately, she established a policy," Baldwin said, "that set the conditions for a complex scheme that cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars."
The Guard declined to provide the names of the officers involved, due to an ongoing investigation into possible wrongdoing.
It was a time, Baldwin said, when "strength" – a reference to the number of troops available – became the Guard's overriding goal.
"It became so important," he said, "that other duties were subordinated to the holy grail of strength."
Miller was a shining success by that measure. Soon after leaving the Recruiting and Retention Command she became the first female brigadier general in California Army Guard history, serving a little less than two years at that level before she was ousted.
Choosing 'hard right'
Col. Diana L. Bodner, who took over from Miller as head of recruiting, told The Bee in 2008: "My message is loud and clear: Do the hard right (thing) over the easy wrong" – an inspirational phrase she also appended to the bottom of her emails.
Under Bodner, recruiting and retention continued to improve as complaints about improper payments began to reach the Guard's inspector general, who examined Jaffe's work and found potentially criminal misconduct.
By summer 2008, said Richard L. Sobrato Jr., then inspector general, he gave his findings to then-Adjutant General William H. Wade II. In an email to The Bee, Wade said that he ordered a review by Guard criminal investigators.
Yet Jaffe remained in place, and the scale of fraud grew.
Recruiters began to enrich themselves. The Bee reported last year that captains and majors, supposed experts in incentive rules, illegally took tens of thousands of dollars each, auditor records show.
A check of Jaffe's paperwork, much of which was obtained by The Bee, revealed rampant fraud and mismanagement. This was overlooked in her performance reviews. Bodner praised Jaffe for "100% accountability" in approving $86 million in payments during one 16-month period, despite noting that Jaffe "becomes confused and puzzled" when asked about bonus procedures.
Like Miller before her, Bodner's recruiting prowess was rewarded by Army Guard commander Antonetti with a bigger job – heading the $130 million operations, training and mobilization group.
Even after The Bee revealed last fall that Bodner had presided over much of the incentive-fraud debacle, then-Adjutant General Mary J. Kight retained Bodner in the training budget post.
Kight did not respond to questions about her handling of Bodner.
Key to success
Shortly after succeeding Bodner at the Recruiting Command in June 2009, Lt. Col. Jodee A. Rowe explained to the staff her philosophy for success: "Responsibility."
"We will hold one another accountable," she wrote in a memo, "and never fail to take responsible action in everything that you do."
Nine days earlier, Rowe had quietly ended, without results, the long-standing internal Guard criminal investigation of Jaffe. That allowed Jaffe to retire quietly and without military penalty.
Such forbearance extended to other subordinates.
Maj. Douglas S. Williams was one of the highest ranking officers who received funds improperly, according to auditor documents. Williams got $33,800, The Bee reported last October.
With Rowe at the helm, Williams nonetheless was later elevated to acting commander for Northern California recruiting.
Soon after Baldwin became adjutant general, Williams was placed under investigation, according to a Guard document obtained by The Bee, and left the Recruiting and Retention Command. Williams declined to comment.
The Bee also reported that Capt. Yasser J. Brenes, another recruiter, received $37,000 in illegal or improper incentives, according to auditor documents. Weeks later, Rowe signed off on an Army Commendation Medal for Brenes, honoring his recruiting work.
Brenes was later placed under investigation, according to a Guard document, but still works as a recruiter. He declined to comment.
Rowe also paid special attention to her staff's creature comforts.
She moved the command into a well-appointed Rancho Cordova office "under the false pretense of being a Store Front Recruiting Office," according to a Guard memo authored by Lt. Col. Peter B. Cross, who later replaced Rowe. It sits half empty. Annual cost: $331,000. Cross called the lease a "misuse of government funds."
Although the lease was properly executed by the California Department of General Services and approved by federal authorities, Baldwin said, he was "stunned at the office's size and opulence," compared to other Guard facilities, and has directed his staff to explore relocation options.
Rowe also oversaw the Lake Tahoe conference, dubbed "Hot Tub Time Machine." The sumptuous annual training event – paid for by taxpayers – for recruiters and their families was scheduled for this fall at the Resort at Squaw Creek. It referenced a recent Hollywood comedy in which three buddies in personal tailspins get drunk at a ski resort spa, which magically sends them back in time, offering a chance to remake their sorry lives.
Training confabs are legal. But Guard members and planning documents described the annual affair as more like a party – prompting Baldwin to cancel the event almost immediately after he learned of it from his staff upon taking command.
In 2009, Rowe's event was called "Jack Sparrow" after the swashbuckling character played by actor Johnny Depp, according to a planning memo. Among the five uniforms required for the event, "pirate attire" was mandatory for the commander's social.
Also under Rowe, more than $30,000 in gift cards for cash, iTunes purchases and spa treatments, among other perks, were kept in a supply cabinet. The idea was to give them as come-ons to potential recruits, according to an experienced soldier who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals for speaking out. Some leaders "would hand them out to subordinates – like, 'good job, here you go' – which is totally illegal," the soldier said.
Thousands of dollars disappeared that way. The scheme was outlined in a confidential Guard legal memo obtained by The Bee.
Rowe recently was shifted from the Recruiting Command to direct personnel and community affairs at Camp Roberts.
'The little things'
Baldwin said his approach to discipline, where possible, would be rehabilitation.
For leaders who engaged in improper practices or policies but did not personally benefit, "we assume that we are going to be able to dust them off, get them back on their career path," he said. "But if I think that they are culpable in setting a bad climate or making bad decisions, they are going to be dealt with decisively."
Likewise, Antonetti placed a priority on orderliness in the ranks. Beyond "strength," his 2007 command philosophy memo emphasized taking care of "the little things," such as pay, efficiency reports and disciplinary actions.
"It is the little things that cause a soldier to become complacent and angered with (the) unit and its leadership," he wrote.
Although fraud proliferated and key subordinates were implicated in a pervasive ethical breakdown on Antonetti's watch, the general neither practiced nor felt the sting of discipline he espoused. He retired last September – days before the scandal broke.